Grad Schools Rope an Ebbing Demographic Wave

By Dennis Boone

Challenges for stabilizing enrollment are significant as the prospective student population declines—but bigger issues loom in the years ahead.

In 2009, the nation’s population of 18-year-olds reached a post-Baby Boom peak, and started a long decline. Many of the students who stepped foot on a college campus as freshmen that fall are proud owners of a bachelor’s degree—which means the demographic trend facing recruiters then has morphed into a graduate-school challenge.

But in the interim, graduate schools haven’t been idly sitting by. They’ve been upgrading programs, building new facilities and classroom spaces and hiring new faculty to address a changing post-graduate student body.

At the University of Kansas, “We’ve taken a couple of initiatives with our campus-wide graduate recruiting tools, enabling departments and programs to target specific potential graduate student populations in more rigorous and refined ways,” says Tom Heilke, dean of graduate programs on the Lawrence campus. “Some of those are proprietary—we do have competitors. But we’ve developed tools to make recruitment efforts more refined and strategically effective.”

So in addition to working more closely with industry, talking with chief executives and inviting business leaders to sit on university boards, KU is trying to get a sense of long-term business needs so it can respond with effective programming. Efforts like those have produced investment in programs related to engineering and other STEM disciplines. But even those can only go so far, Heilke said.

“The minute you have disruptive technologies, you’ve changed the game in ways you wouldn’t have anticipated,” he said. “That may mean the specific kinds of jobs people are prepared for today won’t be the same as tomorrow, and that’s why I, as an administrator and as a teacher, go back to the notion that we can’t be in the business of training students for specific jobs that may or may not exist” in the years ahead.

Rather, it’s incumbent on universities to provide a broad, flexible education in the technical disciplines, humanities and social sciences to make those students adaptable and successful throughout a work life that may encompass several distinctly different career paths.

“We’d be crazy to narrowly target some particular occupational profile,” Heilke said.

He also cautions about placing too much credence in the counsel of business leaders in general. “I’m skeptical of industry complaints and criticisms that we’re not training students for their specific jobs,” he said, noting that most industries don’t fare very well in predicting where they’ll be beyond the short-term. “Universities,” he said, “need to be careful about in investing piles of resources in something that is simply an unknown.”

Prema Arasu, who became CEO of the Kansas State University-Olathe campus just this fall, says the very presence of that campus testifies to the university’s commitment to maintaining program relevance with a changing work force. Kansas City has seen marked increases in life-sciences jobs over the past decade, and the Olathe Innovation Campus opened
in 2011 specifically to meet that need.

“We all know that successful partnerships are built on trust and mutually beneficial, long-term relationships,” Arasu said. “The proximity of the Olathe campus to Kansas City’s diversity of companies, community and alumni provides faster access and more opportunities for interaction. It gives us direct opportunities to cross-connect with K-12, Johnson County Community College, other university campuses here in the Kansas City area and with the Kansas Bioscience Authority to do targeted programming and attract more talent and industry to the region.”

Her goal is to use those relationships to help advance the academic agenda. “I would like to explore more industry-relevant R&D and training partnerships through the K-State Olathe facility,” she said, as well as graduate coursework. “In particular, this might mean having industry experts as adjunct instructors who are co-teaching in courses and sharing their real world experiences with our students,” she said.

Other ways, Arasu said might be to take an executive MBA mindset to how the campus delivers specialized and inter-disciplinary training in the food, animal, agriculture, technology and engineering areas.  “Our students will also have different avenues for professional development tools that meet industry-employer expectations,” she said, “and I would also like to see them connecting in some ways to K-12 to share their experiences and also benefit from the ideas of our younger generation.”

David Donnelly, interim dean of the Bloch School of Management at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, identified some of the programming modifications that reflect shape of the work force in this region. Because a significant share of regional employment is in not-for-profits and government entities, UMKC implemented a non-profit management emphasis in its Master of Public Administration program, ranked 15th in the nation by the U.S. News & World Report of Best Graduate Schools in 2013.

UMKC also added a master’s degree in finance to meet growing demand generated by a long roster of employers—banks, investment banking firms, pension funds, private equity and hedge funds, financial planning firms, mutual fund and investment organizations, corporations, insurance companies and health-care organizations, he said. And, with more than 15,000 people employed in the regional real-estate sector, new graduates can choose from at least 12 real-estate related career paths, Donnelly said. Among them: a Master of Entrepreneurial Real Estate degree introduced in 2011, the first of its kind in the region.

The latter was a natural evolution at a university that boasts a strong curriculum grounded in entrepreneurship. A Ph.D. degree in entrepreneurship, for example, has helped the school’s Institute for Entrepreneurship and Innovation meet not only the needs of the local employment market, but it supports the university’s vision “become a model urban research university characterized by signature graduate and professional programs,” Donnelly said.

Not to be overlooked, he said, are the non-degree programs, which have seen a sharp increase in emphasis, as well. The Bloch Executive Education Center, he said, creates partnerships with many KC companies to support the development of client work forces. “We guide them through the creation and measurement of all of our educational offerings, we spend time with them and their leadership team to ensure that we clearly understand their needs and desired outcomes and we ensure that the application of the program goes exactly as planned.” He said.

The center also provides certificate programs designed for specific audiences, as with its Physician Leadership Program, which develops comprehensive health-care management skills for physicians, or certified financial planning courses.

Non-degree programs are but one way the mission of post-graduate education is changing, but as Heilke notes, a university like KU won’t be straying far from its primary function as a research university.

“The much broader and much more disconcerting question is, really, how education is going to be delivered 10-20 years from now,” he said. “Flipped classes, MOOCs (massive, open on-line courses)—I don’t expect universities with empty classrooms in 10 or 15 years, but the delivery will be different—not the specifics of a program, but more broadly, how all will be delivered. And that’s not a minor detail.”